by Andrew Collins
As autumn darkens toward winter, the sun sinks early and the nights run long. As we retreat to our couches and fireplace hearths, what better company than a melancholy tale? Here, find two recommendations for catharsis of spirits made pensive by the chill at year’s end.
A Most Violent Year
The title of this film is misleading. A Most Violent Year is far from the most violent movie you will see this year.
Set in New York City in 1981, when violent crime was at a peak, it is more like the anti-gangster crime film. Only one person dies. A few of them get black eyes. That’s about it. And yet — in open defiance of their chosen genre — the filmmakers use the threat and anticipation of violence to pack the film with tension.
Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, a self-made businessman in the oil delivery business, whose company comes under a two-front assault by armed truck-jackers and a prying district attorney (David Oyelowo). The first night in a new house with his family, Abel chases off an intruder lingering outside the front window. The man ends up anticlimactically running away, but not until the film has spent a few minutes showing Abel pacing through his house, poised with a baseball bat. At another point one of Abel’s employees is suddenly mugged while making a house call.
These moments make the story feel like it could descend into a vicious, bloody cycle at any moment. The filmmakers keep us on the edge of our seats, because we know that this is New York City in 1981 (and also because we’ve seen too many Al Pacino films); competitors don’t always play by the rules, and the good guy doesn’t always win.
In the midst of this perilous atmosphere, Abel lives by a decidedly New Yorker moral code. There’s always a “most right” way of doing things, he tells the district attorney. There’s a lot of practical wisdom in this. It suggests that some genuine level of integrity is possible while acknowledging that no one is perfect. You might not be able to stay entirely within the law, for instance, but you can sure as hell do business with enough honesty to survive the scrutiny of the nation’s toughest DA.
Meanwhile, every member of the surrounding cast, save for Abel’s lawyer, pushes him toward an eye-for-an-eye ethic. Two of his closest confidants — his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and his employee Julian (Elyes Gabel) — decide to defend themselves with firearms in violation of the law. In the face of this, the simplicity of Abel’s morality, which is rooted in honest business dealings and a compliance with “standard industry practices,” keeps the story engaging.
Abel’s one moment of weakness, which ends in two bloody fists and a gun pointed at a man’s temple, takes place in the moment of most intense pressure to choose the path of violence. But even this hardly qualifies as a stain on his character, since the man he tackles had just stolen one of his trucks, and after a few interrogating questions he lets the man go. Abel’s decision to hold fast to his moral conviction here takes a refreshing turn from the direction films of this genre usually follow. It makes A Most Violent Year a noteworthy picture of 2015.
That said, this film is not without its weaknesses. The story drags at points, pushing the limits of tolerable length at 125 minutes. It also fails to resolve several secondary conflicts — notably, the man outside the window, and the one who mugged the salesmen. Perhaps we are meant to think these were just happenstances of living in New York at the time, but the main story ends in similar fashion — with Abel poised for business success, but also expecting that violence will continue to harass his company. For the viewer, it isn’t a terribly satisfying conclusion.
The story succeeds, like the business, almost exclusively on the strength of Abel Morales’s character. You can tell he’s just a generation or two off the boat – the quintessential immigrant success story who made it in life by learning how to play the American game better than any of his competitors. Men like him capture the ethos that American politicians invoke even today about the United States as a land of opportunity — despite its rough capitalist edges. Abel helps light that spark of faith that, even in a dark and corrupt environment, men of integrity can save their livelihoods without losing their goodness.
At the opposite end of the morality spectrum (and the geopolitical one), we find another film — shadow brother to the first.
In a blog post last year for the New York Review of Books, journalist Masha Gessen made a “bizzare and disturbing” observation about her experience in Russia: people kept dying. It wasn’t like there was a war or epidemic, she wrote, but the death rate was inexorably high, going back nearly half a century. Even with certain improvements since the collapse of the Soviet Union, tragedy is simply written into their lives, going back generations through oppression, wars, and revolutions, and inspiring greats like Dostoevsky and Chekhov.
Upon researching the question, Gessen notes that the few brief breaks in this downward spiral of mortality “coincided not with periods of greater prosperity but with periods, for lack of a more data-driven description, of greater hope.”
“If so,” she writes, “Russia is dying of a broken heart—also known as cardiovascular disease.”
Leviathan follows in this literary ethos. To summarize it crassly: The peasant gets screwed over by everyone for no particular reason.
The setting and plot are predicated on two biblical stories: the book of Job, and the account of Naboth’s vineyard in the book of 1 Kings, where the wicked king Ahab desires to acquire the vineyard of the poor landowner Naboth – and ends up killing him. In Leviathan, a corrupt mayor in small town Russia seeks to seize the land of the humble mechanic Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov). As he tries to defend himself from the mayor’s wicked plan, Nikolay’s personal life crumbles around him, leaving him with less and less.
As Gessen pointed out, few peoples are more accustomed to suffering than the Russians. In Leviathan most of the characters seem either resigned to their oppressive, dog-eat-dog world, or they embrace it through a perverse theology of power where God’s favor accompanies might, regardless of how it is used.
Nikolay accepts a certain baseline of misery in life – a deceased wife, simple work as a mechanic, strained relations between his son and second wife. It’s nothing that a few good friends, the occasional weekend out shooting, and a bottle of vodka can’t make bearable. But as the meager hopes and joys of his life are swept out from under him one by one, like the servants bearing bad news to Job, he finds less and less comfort. Even heaven seems closed to him, silent and opaque above a forsaken world.
Nikolay’s suffering comes to a head in a last-ditch conversation with the local priest. The cleric refers him to Job 41, quoting: “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will he make many pleas to you? Will he speak to you soft words?”
The priest’s point is this: in the midst of suffering and hardship, we often can’t explain why things happen the way they do, and we may not ever find the answer (at least not in this life). In the ancient story, God’s answer to Job is essentially “I’m God and you’re not, so shut up,” and Job says “Ok, I shut up.”
Unlike Job, however, Nikolay has forgotten God. In the biblical account, Job had his life and possessions restored to him, and Elijah came on behalf of God to judge Ahab and Jezebel for what they did to Naboth. Leviathan offers no such postscript. All have gone aside in this epic without redemption: the corrupt mayor, discontented wife, rebellious son, hotheaded father, adulterous brother, politicized priest. Any one of them could make things better if they dared to break the cycle of selfishness. But they do not.
As the film’s producer Alexander Rodnyansky explains, this film “deals with some of the most important social issues of contemporary Russia… it is a story of love and tragedy experienced by ordinary people.”
It is Nikolay’s ordinariness that makes the absurdity of this tragedy grip our hearts. He may have been a bit of a hothead, fiercely proud, but it hardly seems commensurate to what he suffers.
In its bleakness, Leviathan as cinema is magnificent, visually gripping and emotive. Set on the peninsula of the Barents Sea (a marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean), the cold, colorless landscape of water, rock, and underbrush is simultaneously beautiful and forbidding. Along with the decrepit lake town, pale wardrobes, and ever-present colorless vodka, it reflects the hearts of its characters. We feel the coldness of the Russian legacy and see how it has produced occupants both profoundly stubborn and deeply unfulfilled.
Leviathan‘s pacing makes this a point of contemplation, drawing out the 140 minute film with lengthy shots of crashing waves, blowing wind, hulls of decomposing boats, and the skeleton of a whale – a symbolic, bleached reminder of the leviathans of life that lurk in the watery abyss, far beyond our control.
In the end, Leviathan leaves something for both the believer and pagan to consider.
Several times Dmitriy, Nikolay’s lawyer (and brother), is asked if he believes in God, to which he responds that he believes in facts. He leaves the story with a black eye and fractured relationship with Nikolay, bound for the stability of his Moscow lawyering circles.
At another point the film lingers in an orthodox church. A priest speaks of finding freedom in obedience to God, according to the truths preserved by the Church. A broad swath of characters sit before him — mostly disinterested and likely personally corrupt, as their new cars and SUVs parked outside the church attest. None appear very repentant.
Sinner and priest alike, then, are content to sit idly by while the poor man suffers injustice.